The Global Sustainability Challenge: A Systems View of Agriculture

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 27. October 2020 - 17:07

The Global Sustainability Challenge:
A Systems View of Agriculture

Arthur Lyon Dahl
A presentation to the Agriculture Working Group
Association for Bahá'í Studies
27 September 2020

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Adequate nutrition should be a basic human right, and ensuring food for all a moral responsibility, yet nearly a billion people still go hungry in a world where there is adequate food for all. The agricultural system is complex, with environmental, social and economic dimensions that must be addressed together.

With the human population growing rapidly for several decades, the need to increase food production let to the green revolution and today's highly intensive industrial agriculture. However future trends show ageing and even shrinking populations in wealthier countries, birth rates declining with increasing urbanization, and rapid population growth linked to poverty and lack of education. Food production will need to meet increasing demand in the near future and adapt to stable or shrinking demand later in the century.

Intensive agriculture for maximum short-term production is unsustainable. Of all the arable land on the planet, at least 36% has been degraded since WWII, an area equivalent to India and China combined (Montgomery 2007). The organic matter and microbial communities of the soil are degraded and soil erosion accelerated. Agriculture needs to move from soil destruction to soil restoration.

The biodiversity of the planet and the ecosystem services it provides are under threat. Half the species on Earth are at risk of going extinct. Agriculture also depends on biodiversity for everything from pollenation and pest control to genetic resilience. The heavy use of pesticides has caused a massive reduction in insect populations, including those essential to pollinate crops. New forms of agriculture can help to restore functioning natural systems, including organic farming, permaculture, agroforestry and others yet to be developed.

The world is facing a crisis of water management with increasing drought and floods, and much of the world facing water scarcity, while agriculture is the major water user and often polluter. As an activity largely dependent on water, there are both vulnerabilities and opportunities to rethink agriculture as a responsible partner in managing an increasingly scarce resource essential for life.

Climate change is transforming the planet, including for agriculture (Dahl 2007). Farmers can no longer assume that future growing conditions will be the same as in the past, and increasing variability can easily bring crop failures. Adapting agriculture to a changing climate is an enormous challenge. Agriculture is also a major emitter of greenhouse gases, whether from deforestation and land clearing, methane emissions from cattle, sheep, or rice paddies, to carbon released by the breakdown of soil organic matter and the use of fossil fuels in agricultural machinery and food transport. Agriculture can also contribute to the solution, both by transforming to reduce emissions, and by restoring natural vegetation to areas no longer used for farming, by making more space for nature in agriculture, and by increasing soil humus for carbon capture and storage.

The economic dimension of agriculture is also critical to its future. Modern industrialized farming and livestock raising are driven by multinational agroindustries to maximize their profits. They develop patented varieties to control genetic resources, often privatising innovations originally created by farmers, while selecting varieties that depend on the fertilizers and biocides that they manufacture, making farmers totally dependent on their packaged solutions. Now they are using big data to control all the information on the food production system so they can tell farmers what to do and when while integrating along the whole chain from farmer to consumer. In Canada, they capture all the profits, keeping farmers on the verge of bankruptcy and totally dependent. They lobby for laws to protect their economic model and prevent competition from other approaches. A farmer I met in France makes a reasonable living from his organic farm processing the products himself and distributing them locally, but it is all illegal according to French and European regulations. In the USA, while farm cash receipts have increased over the past century from $6 billion in 1910 to $363 billion in 2018, production expenses rose just as fast, from $4 billion in 1910 to $359 billion in 2018, with no appreciable growth in the value of net farm income.

All this assumes continuing business as usual. There are many possible crises on the horizon, or already here with the pandemic, that could affect food production and trade in our globally-integrated system. A conflict between major powers or nuclear exchange, an economic collapse as the global debt bubble bursts, an accelerating climate catastrophe, or even a giant solar flare grilling everything electrical on the planet, could trigger a collapse of the material civilization upon which most of us are totally dependent. In such a case, survival may depend on the ability of local communities to feed themselves through solidarity, collaboration and innovation. The Bahá'í approach to community building could be seen as one way of increasing local resilience in the face of an uncertain short-term future as we lay the foundation for the ever-advancing civilization to emerge.

'Abdu'l-Bahá used agriculture as the basis for defining some essential economic principles which are logical in an occupation where there are risks beyond the control of the farmer.

"The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil. All must be producers. Each person in the community whose need is equal to his individual producing capacity shall be exempt from taxation. But if his income is greater than his needs, he must pay a tax until an adjustment is effected. That is to say, a man's capacity for production and his needs will be equalized and reconciled through taxation. If his production exceeds, he will pay a tax; if his necessities exceed his production, he shall receive an amount sufficient to equalize or adjust. Therefore, taxation will be proportionate to capacity and production, and there will be no poor in the community." ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 217)

This implies a guaranteed minimum income, a concept close to the universal basic income being discussed today.

There is also the example of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's village in the Jordan Valley, where he demonstrated how a community could innovate to demonstrate sustainable agriculture (Poostchi 2010; Hanley 2019).

These suggest some of the questions that could help us design agricultural systems for the future. How do we make rural life both attractive and rewarding? New information technologies can reduce isolation and provide access to knowledge and culture. Food prices need to be set to ensure an adequate income to farmers, complemented by the kind of guarantee that 'Abdu'l-Bahá described. Local Bahá'í institutions seem to be designed for small communities such as those appropriate to rural areas. Renewable energies are more distributed, and therefore more accessible to rural areas. There is no 'one size fits all'. Agriculture needs to be adapted to each local environment, geographic location and social situation. Communities need their own scientific research capacity to develop and manage the best agriculture for their local resources and coming changes. Each community also needs to find the balance between local self-sufficiency and integration into the global economy.

Agriculture is thus one essential component of the global human and natural system that is struggling to emerge from a system of competing nation states to an ever-advancing world civilization. But agriculture is only part of the system; change is also needed in the larger economic system and corporate structure, the operation of markets and trade relationships, taxation and wealth redistribution, and mechanisms to support and integrate rural communities. Agricultural reform needs to be part of broader systems change.


'Abdu'l-Baha. "Cooperation"", pp. 38-44, in Foundations of World Unity. Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1945.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2007. "Climate Change and its Ethical Challenges"", p. 157-172. In The Baha'i World 2005-2006: An International Record. Haifa: Baha'i World Centre.

Dahl, Arthur Lyon. 2019. In Pursuit of Hope: A Guide for the Seeker. Oxford: George Ronald. 194 p.

Hanley, Paul. 2014. Eleven. Friesen Press, Victoria, BC, Canada. 400 p.

Hanley, Paul. 2019. "Begin with the Village: The Baha’i Approach to Rural Development"". The Baha’i World, May 2019.

International Environment Forum, Compilation on Agriculture:

IPBES. 2018. Summary for policymakers of the thematic assessment report on land degradation and restoration of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. R. Scholes, L. Montanarella, A. Brainich, N. Barger, B. ten Brink, M. Cantele, B. Erasmus, J. Fisher, T. Gardner, T. G. Holland, F. Kohler, J. S. Kotiaho, G. Von Maltitz, G. Nangendo, R. Pandit, J. Parrotta, M. D. Potts, S. Prince, M. Sankaran and L. Willemen (eds.), Bonn, Germany: IPBES secretariat.

Montgomery, David R. 2007. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. Berkeley: University of California Press. 285 p.

Poostchi, Iraj. 2010. "‘Adasiyyah: A Study in Agriculture and Rural Development", Bahá’í Studies Review 16:61–105. doi: 10.1386/bsr.16 61/7.

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UNCTAD. 2013. Wake Up Before It Is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. Trade and Environment Review 2013. Geneva: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. 321 p.

Last updated 27 October 2020